Saturday, October 1, 2011


Looking back on LA’s early art scene
How the Getty was a catalyst for a citywide rediscovery of a history that was in danger of disappearing
By Helen Stoilas and Javier Pes From issue 228, October 2011
Published online 30 Sep 11 (News)

Los Angeles. There has never been anything like Pacific Standard Time (PST). The six-month-long, multi-venue initiative is almost certainly the most expensive, ambitious and collaborative project that any US city has attempted. Even on an international scale, perhaps only the Venice Biennale matches the cost and organisational effort that has gone into the project, which documents Los Angeles’ position as a hub for contemporary art after world war two. Beyond the exhibitions, performances and other programmes, the biggest precedent being set is the level of co-operation that is occurring among the city’s art spaces. For once, Los Angeles may overcome its image as a disunited conglomeration of neighbourhoods and be seen as one big arts community.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about PST is how it started. In 2002, the Getty Research Institute and the Getty Foundation joined forces to ¬establish a research initiative that would archive the post-war ¬history of southern California’s artists and explore the emergence of Los Angeles as an international art centre. Early on, it was known as “On the Record” and remained a largely internal project, created to prevent the history of Los Angeles’ art and artists disappearing. “There were things that needed to be rescued,” says Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery in London who lived and worked in Los Angeles for over a decade. “There are a few artists, such as Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, whose early work is well known, but there are a lot who haven’t made it ¬into the canon of American art, who made great work and who were largely ignored by the art press [at the time].”

Little did the Getty know that the project would grow into the 60-venue event PST has become. Over the past ten years, the foundation has given more than $10m in grants to institutions in and around Los Angeles (and even a few museums outside the state), helping them to preserve, study and display their collections of Californian art. The institute, meanwhile, acquired the archives of major figures in the city’s art scene, including collector and art dealer Betty Asher, artists Robert Irwin and Allan Kaprow, photographer Charles Brittin, and curator and museum director Henry Hopkins. It also amassed its own archive of oral histories through interviews with artists, collectors, curators and critics.

It turned out that the Getty wasn’t alone in its interest. “We started hearing from organisations that they were finding fantastic stories in these archives and we began to think that this was bigger than just a behind-the-scenes project,” says Deborah Marrow, the Getty Foundation’s director (see related story). “A lot of these ideas were in the air,” says Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma). Paul Schimmel, the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), agrees: “There were a number of curators noodling around ideas.”

Rooted in research

As more institutions became ¬involved in the conversation, the project started to grow beyond the Getty’s walls, but it retained the collegiate spirit of its research roots. Many point to this as PST’s biggest strength. “What I love about it is that it’s one of those civic-wide initiatives that was born out of curators and research rather than the economic development office,” says Govan. He and Schimmel both say comparisons have been made with past citywide cultural events, notably the ten-week-long Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival organised for the 1984 games. “But the Olympics were really about audiences, what kinds of shows could we do that would be really popular. With PST, it was only ¬after the foundations had been laid that it became a goal to make it a cultural tourism event,” says Schimmel.

The decision on which institutions should receive funding was made by a selection committee “of museum and university scholars”, says the Getty’s Melissa Abraham. A wealth of proposals emerged from the applicants; in some cases the foundation went back to the institutions with comments to help improve their ¬research. “The exhibitions had to be about art produced in Los Angeles from 1945 to 1980, with initial funding for research and planning,” says Abraham. “Applications were reviewed for the significance of the topic and for the proposed programme of new research.”

By remaining institutionally anchored, PST has been able to avoid the repetition that might have resulted if all the museums involved were competing to host the same all-encompassing surveys. Instead, every museum has its niche and curators are happily sharing information and resources across collections. “When you have 60 museums working on the project and no one’s doing the same thing, you come up with new views,” says Leah Lehmbeck, a curator at the Norton Simon Museum (formerly the Pasadena Art Museum), which, in addition to organising an exhibition on Los Angeles’ print-making practice, is one of the biggest lenders to PST’s roster of exhibitions with 87 works from its collection out on loan. “What is surprising is this massive amount of co-operation, no one’s fighting over information, everyone’s got their own thing.”

Great expectations

So what is it about Los Angeles that makes this kind of project possible? The consensus is that a city as young as Los Angeles has finally built up enough of a history to look back on. “If you see it as a coming of age story for a city, culturally and artistically, it makes sense,” says Govan. “It’s already happened in New York [and] cities like Chicago or Cleveland [which] were famous cultural centres at the turn of the last century. Art has moved west, and we are at the end of the line.”

It may seem inevitable that Los Angeles would finally turn its attention inward when its artists and movements have been gaining international interest for decades. Historically, Los Angeles artists have complained that they were getting more shows in Europe than they ever could back home. “A lot of people have been looking at Los Angeles, it only makes sense that now is the time for something like PST,” says Franklin Sirmans, the head curator of contemporary art at Lacma. He points to recent exhibitions focusing on the city’s artistic production including “Sunshine & Noir: Art in LA 1960-1997” at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark in 1997, “Los Angeles 1955-1985: The Birth of an Art Capital” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2006, and “Time & Place: Los Angeles 1957-1968” at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2009 (which toured to the Kunsthaus Zürich).

California’s museums have ¬also grown, albeit with a few slips here and there, to become internationally respected institutions, so there is now a critical mass of art professionals in the area. “Thirty five years ago when I first got there, Los Angeles was artist rich and institution poor,” says Richard Koshalek, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, who helped found MoCA in 1980 and served as its first chief curator and later director for nearly 20 years. Now, “there is a lot of curatorial genius,” he says. “The richness of the creative community gets under your skin,” says Schimmel.

And, of course, you can never underestimate the power of the Getty Foundation. Most of the other museums involved in the project acknowledge that it would never have got off the ground without Los Angeles’ “white prince on the hill”. With an endowment calculated at $5.3bn in 2010, the Getty Trust is the only institution that can afford to foot the bill for a project on the scale of PST. “It wasn’t going to happen if the Getty didn’t fund it because we’d all be going to the same three foundations and corporations,” says Schimmel. “I don’t think the show [“Under the Big Black Sun”, a survey of Californian art from 1974 to 1981] would have happened at MoCA without the kinds of ¬resources the Getty offered, ¬especially during the museum’s ¬financial difficulties.” Govan adds: “The Getty, which was founded to bring European and ancient art to Los Angeles is now finding itself... focused on the fact that there’s an art history right here.”

Where to go from here?

PST has been ten years in the making and the public opening on 2 October has been one of the most anticipated events in the arts calendar this year. But after the excitement, and the anxiety, of seeing how successful this great experiment proves to be passes, Los Angeles will still be left with a wealth of materials. Many expect the archives to lead to further studies and exhibitions. “These catalogues are going to be a major legacy and I’m sure it will prompt another layer of research for generations to come,” says Lehmbeck. “This isn’t a one time event,” says Govan. “There are future shows planned; we have a James Turrell retrospective planned for a couple of years from now.” PST could also have an effect on the city’s public collections. “Institutions, you hope, will collect some of the work, and curators will see that there are important additions to the collections to be made,” says Rugoff.

There are also expectations that the collaboration will continue after PST is over. “That’s one thing that we’re all hopeful about, that having worked ¬together—co-ordinating dates, thinking about programming and having more communication among each other—that it will continue. And I think it will,” says Govan.
A major concern is whether a city of freeways that receives tourists more interested in its beaches and movie stars will be able to sustain visitor numbers. “Los Angeles is home to mainstream visual culture, movies and TV, that overshadows the importance of art institutions. But the museums have made great strides in developing audiences. [After PST] it will still be an issue in terms of attracting a large audience,” says Rugoff. “Will [smaller] shows be able to compete with [blockbusters like] the huge French impressionism show held at Lacma? It will be very interesting to see who comes—not to the Getty, Lacma, or MoCA—but to see how successful these shows are [at smaller venues],” says Schimmel. He also wonders if PST will be the series of exhibitions that will change the model for cultural tourism, which he says is “to a large degree non-existent” in Los Angeles. “Years ago when we did the Warhol exhibition, we worked with the city, but it did not attract the kind of cultural tourism that we had hoped for,” says Schimmel.

Moreover, will this investment in Los Angeles’ art scene encourage a new generation of philanthropists to emulate the likes of Eli and Edythe Broad, the city’s pre-eminent supporters of the visual arts and leading contemporary art collectors.

The hills of Hollywood might be full of potential donors but it has never been easy for museums to win the support of those in the film and TV industries. “People who are in the film business, or at least some of them, see themselves as artists. It’s like asking art people to support ¬music. It’s tough to crack,” says Rugoff. That said, he points out that there are many individuals who support art in Los Angeles.

Whatever the outcome of PST, the event itself will be hard to ignore. “The Los Angeles art scene is vibrant and has a dedicated group of people involved. It would be fantastic if PST had a lasting effect on getting the public to engage in its own city’s art,” says Lehmbeck, who is a native Angeleno herself. “I am seriously proud of my city.”

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